Arkansas education board approves two new online charter schools

Board backs 2 programs that can serve students statewide

Arkansas State Board of Education chairman Ouida Newton looks for comment during the board of education meeting on Thursday in Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

The Arkansas Board of Education on Thursday approved the establishment of two virtual charter schools -- each of which can serve students statewide.

The 7-0 votes for each of the schools -- one a ninth-through-12th-grade high school and the other for kindergarten through 12th grades -- come after the state's Charter Authorizing Panel reviewed and voted in support of the plans in April.

The Education Board accepted the panel's decisions Thursday without any questions or discussion, and without any opposition from other school systems.

The two new virtual schools constitute amendments to previously approved state charters for operating open-enrollment charter schools. One virtual school is being added to the charter for the Founders Classical Academy system and the other is being added to the Premier High Schools of Arkansas system.

The Founders Classical Academy and Premier High Schools systems are sister systems -- both sponsored by Responsive Education Solutions, a charter management organization based in Texas.

The Founders Classical Academy plan is to open a virtual or online school that would grow to serve as many as 500 Arkansas students in kindergarten through 12th grades over three years.

Along with the new school, the state Education Board approved an increase in the Founders Classical Academy's overall enrollment cap from 2,500 to 3,000 students.

The Founders charter system has existing brick-and-mortar campuses in Bentonville, enrollment 956, and Little Rock, enrollment 135, with a third campus to open later this year in Rogers.

Premier High Schools of Arkansas -- with existing or soon-to-open campuses in Little Rock, Fort Smith and Texarkana -- intends to serve up to 250 high school students in the new virtual school. To that end, the enrollment cap for the Premier system was increased Thursday from 625 to 875 to accommodate the virtual school.

Premier High Schools are considered second-chance schools for students who were not successful in traditional high schools for a variety of reasons.

The two newly approved virtual schools will be the fourth and fifth online schools in the state.

Arkansas Virtual Academy, Arkansas Connections Academy and the LISA Academy Arkansas Hybrid School are already in operation. The LISA Hybrid school offers a mix of virtual instruction but requires students to be on-site for half a day every other week for intervention and enrichment.

Some traditional public school districts have also started their own online schools. The Little Rock School District, for example, operates the digital Ignite Academies for elementary and for secondary school students. The Pulaski County Special District operates the Driven virtual school.

Susan Provenza, director of the Founders Classical Academies of Arkansas, told the Education Board, "We're looking forward to the possibility of being able to serve more students across the state of Arkansas."

Provenza told the Charter Authorizing Panel last month that the virtual school will make a classical education available to students beyond central and Northwest Arkansas.

She also said that an online school with teachers specifically trained for online instruction would be a benefit to students, as would programs and extracurricular activities especially designed for the online environment.

Dennis Felton, director of the Premier High Schools of Arkansas, told the Education Board that the charter system is excited about making the Premier model accessible to more students.